Americans pride themselves on helping the distressed. They have indeed been generous when people and countries are in trouble. But our public and government have also been complacent in the face of massive human suffering. Recall Rwanda and Cambodia. More recently, the U.S. public has watched passively for well over two years the continuing destruction of a highly developed state: Syria, where more than 120,000 civilians have been killed and more than 6 million left homeless.
Nine million people need humanitarian assistance. More than 2 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. More than 3 million others are now beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies, according to the United Nations. All of these numbers increase daily; hence the urgent international calls for more direct humanitarian assistance and the scrambling diplomatic activity. With no prospect of Western military aid to end the conflict and little likelihood of a negotiated solution, greater humanitarian assistance is seen as the only way of helping millions of beleaguered people for an uncertain time — an extraordinary admission of political failure.
Americans have not collectively expressed great concern or reached deep in their pockets to provide desperately needed aid, nor have humanitarian agencies aggressively pursued funds from the public. Aid has come mostly from increasing government appropriations. The absence of public clamor has made it easier for the Obama administration to stay on the sidelines of this international wreck, seek empty U.N. resolutions and get away with providing funds for humanitarian assistance without doing more to resolve the issue. The U.S. secretary of state did not even attend the most recent U.N. pledging conference to scrounge monies from stingy states. Our government does not want public clamor.
Many would argue that the anemic public response to the Syrian debacle is not surprising. It is incessantly pointed out that Americans are exhausted after two wars and that much more needs to be done at home, as the president asserts. Some always feel that Americans squander too much on others’ problems. The country is also supposedly tired of its massive continuing military involvement in Muslim countries. For many Americans, getting involved even in humanitarian efforts is something of a slippery slope to military involvement. Too often they have heard the siren song.
Yet many constituencies that would usually promote greater involvement appear to be sitting out the Syrian crisis. Evangelical churches that urged presidents to provide greater help for southern Sudanese seem uncharacteristically silent as a country full of desperate Christians sinks steadily into oblivion. Why do they not cry out to help their brethren? Many would ask whom should they support in Syria, a country beset by deepening sectarian divisions. Syrian Christians have suffered badly and feel desperate about a future in an Islamist-dominated country. Their support and security still come mostly from President Bashar al-Assad. Many U.S. churches apparently choose to remain silent in an anti-Assad world.
What about the U.S. Jewish community? Jewish advocates have been in the forefront of responses to humanitarian crises from the Balkans to Africa, where they helped generate sustained support for Bosnia and Darfur. Strong eloquent voices such as Elie Wiesel still call out the U.S. government, but many Jews seem circumspect about getting involved in Syria, where bad guys abound on each side and the Israeli security benefits from Assad’s demise are uncertain. Many are torn by the human disaster and want Assad to go, but, like other Americans, they are wary about military action, including the armed delivery of humanitarian assistance within Syria.
Humanitarian agencies have been doing extraordinary work in and around Syria, but they either have tried and failed to arouse the U.S. public, or they are averse to beating public drums for Syrian relief. Major agencies focus on the federal government when seeking funds for Syria and regional refugee relief. Few have gotten together to raise public awareness or private funds.
Even Hollywood has been mostly silent on Syria.
It is already very late. More money is needed for the displaced and those who will soon swell their numbers. Just as important, an agreement between the warring parties and their international patrons or some other approach is now required to get much greater assistance into Syria. Assad and his foreign supporters have not had to fear what an energized U.S. public might demand of its government. Ways must be found beyond bombing runs for the United States and other Western governments to save the millions of Syrians at risk as well as limit the destructive spillover for friends in the region. Those who care must rally around a common banner of pressing the U.S. government to urgently take extraordinary steps to save many more Syrians.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand.